Karibi-Whyte JSC: A Life of Service and Demonstration of Knowledge


Dele Adesina, SAN
Writing a tribute to Honourable Justice Adolphus Godwin Karibi-Whyte, JSC (Rtd), for me, is an enormous task. This is because reeling out his Lordship’s significant accomplishments in life, and more particularly, on the Bench, leaves one in a very difficult situation to decide what to pick and what to leave behind.

His Life and Career
Honourable Justice Adolphus Karibi-Whyte JSC (hereinafter referred to as Justice Karibi-Whyte), died at the ripe age of 88 years.
He was born on the 29th of January, 1932 in Abonnema, Akuku Toru Local Government Area of Rivers State. He obtained his Undergraduate Law Degree from the University of Hull in 1960, and was called to the Bar in 1961. He also attended the University of London in 1962, where he obtained his Ph.D. However, his contributions to law and delivery of justice started in 1951, when he clerked for a Court till 1957, before going to the University.

He joined the Rivers State Ministry of Justice as a Draftsman in 1973, and later became the Solicitor-General in Rivers State. He was also an Associate-Professor of Law at the University of Lagos.

Justice Karibi-Whyte was appointed as a Judge in the Federal Revenue Court. He presided in that court till 1980, when he was elevated to the Court of Appeal. He served in the Court of Appeal for four years before being elevated again, to the highest court of the land, the Supreme Court. It was in this court that he rendered most of the judgements which have not only stood the test of time, but some of which have also become the locus classicus on the issues of law determined by the Court.

As a Justice of the Supreme Court
His Lordship contributed in no small measure, to the development of our laws; both through his majority and dissenting judgements. Even when his position appeared to be unpopular, he would nonetheless, marshal his reasoning in the most eloquent and professorial manner. His judgements were always well researched, and he never failed to decide momentous issues of law, according to his belief and depth of knowledge. He would not hesitate to render dissenting judgement whenever his erudition, his research, his depth of knowledge, his conscience, and his understanding of the issues of facts and law involved in the matter, dictated to him the imperative need and necessity to depart from the reasoning of his colleagues.

Some of his Decisions are still the Loci Classici
I readily recall his Lordship’s dissenting decision in the case of Attorney-General of the Federation v Attorney-General of Abia State & Ors (2001) LPELR-24862 where his Lordship of blessed memory enthused as follows:

“I have read the leading ruling of the learned Honourable Chief Justice. I have found it difficult to reconcile my understanding of the law and the exposition in the decided cases of the accepted, well-settled principles of the law as applicable to the factual situation of this case, the constitutional position of the courts and the exercise of the jurisdiction in the determination of the rights granted by the Constitution, with the reasoning and conclusions of the Honourable Chief Justice in his ruling.

.…It seems to me unnecessarily ambitious, for this court to assume jurisdiction, where the law has not vested any. The thirst to assume jurisdiction should be prudently controlled, by the reasonableness and propriety of its exercise. The watch-word in the situation, is caution. It is preposterous to assume jurisdiction, where there is no cause of action……To assume jurisdiction in such circumstances, is like sailing on an uncharted sea without a compass or driving to an unknown destination without a road map. As angels of justice, the courts should avoid treading dangerous alleys.

It is hardly disputable that, where there is no cause of action, there cannot be a justiciable dispute. The court should not be overly anxious to expand its jurisdiction, in situations where the law has granted none”.
Legal practitioners, particularly the forensic advocates among us will admit the fact that, Justice Karibi-Whyte’s dissenting decision in Savannah Bank of Nigeria v Pan-Atlantic Shipping and Transport Agencies Limited (1987) now represents the foundational basis for the law as it is today.

It was not all the time, that he rendered dissenting judgements. No! but he always delivered impactful judgements. One of such impactful decisions was the case of Saraki v Kotoye (1992) 9 NWLR (Pt. 264) 156 at 188 where he presented a clear opinion which today has remained the locus classicus on abuse of court process to consist of:

“…the intention, purpose or aim of the person exercising the right to harass, irritate and annoy the adversary and interfere with the administration of justice; it is the inconvenience and inequities involved in the aims and purposes of the action”.
He went on to identify specific instances of what would constitute an abuse of court

process as including but not limited to:
(i) Instituting multiplicity of actions on the same subject against the same opponent on the same issues.
(ii) Instituting different actions between the same parties simultaneously, in different courts.
(iii) Where two similar processes are used in respect of the exercise of the same right.
(iv) Where there is no iota of law supporting a court process, or where it is premised on frivolity or recklessness”.

Even though in our briefs today, we all argue that the concept of abuse of court process is fluid and imprecise one, Justice Karibi-Whyte provided us with the much-needed guidance, clarity, and barometer on the issue of abuse of court process. Till now, in 2020, the said case remains the locus classicus and the go-to judicial authority, for the question of abuse of court process.
He also rendered an outstanding opinion on the essence of interlocutory injunctions, and when a Court ought to grant same in Akapo v Hakeem Habeeb (1992) 6 NWLR (Pt. 247) 266 at 289, where he held that:

“It is well established that the essence of the grant of injunction is to protect the existing legal right of a person from unlawful invasion by another – See Kotoye v C.B.N. (1989) 1 NWLR (Pt. 98) 419. It is for the protection of a recognisable right. See Obeya Memorial Hospital v Attorney-General for the Federation & Anor (1987) 3 NWLR (Pt.60) 325. Hence, an injunction can be granted, though no pecuniary damage is proved. See King v Brown, Durant & Co. (1913) 2 Ch.416. As long as the acts complained of will result in the infringing of the applicant’s rights, it is a proper case for intervention by the grant of an injunction”.

His Lordship’s ability to cut through the façade and go straight to the resolution of the main issue at hand was indicative of his extraordinary analytical mind and great attention to detail.

I decided to highlight the above cases just to further demonstrate that the landmark cases of Tukur v Gongola State (1989) 4 NWLR (Pt. 117) 517, Grace Jack v University of Agriculture, Makurdi (2004) 17 NSCQLR 90 at 102 and Savannah Bank of Nigeria v Pan Atlantic Shipping & Transport Agencies Ltd (1987) 1 NWLR (Pt. 49) 212 are not the only landmark cases where his Lordship demonstrated his consummate and absolute grasp of not just what the law is, but what the law ought to be.

Justice Karibi-Whyte, a man of imposing personality was a great man. A man of honour and excellence, an achiever, and a man of high integrity. By his stature, both physically, educationally, professionally and above all judicially, he could never pass you by unnoticed. To him, his conscience was his companion. He was a pride to the legal profession.

Justice Karibi-Whyte was an extraordinary personality. He lived a life of service.
May his soul rest in perfect peace. Amen.
Dele Adesina, SAN, former General Secretary, NBA